|The Menlo Park Police Department is short-handed, and now there's an explanation why: Four officers have resigned over the past several weeks, and two are suing a Menlo Park police sergeant and the city for racial discrimination.
Former Menlo Park officers Keith Butler and Joe Hinkston, both of whom are black, claim they were harassed and discriminated against on the job by Sgt. Ron Prickett, a 27-year veteran of the department, according to a lawsuit filed with San Mateo County Superior Court.
Ken Clayton, a third black officer who quit the Menlo Park force in September 2005, is also a plaintiff in the suit.
An attorney representing Sgt. Prickett and the city says in a court document that they are being "erroneously sued." Cynthia O'Neill, a lawyer with the San Francisco-based firm, Liebert, Cassidy & Whitmore, says in a response to the plaintiff's complaint that the claims are "frivolous, unreasonable and groundless."
A spokesperson from Liebert, Cassidy & Whitmore said in response to a reporter's inquiry that the defense had no comment on the lawsuit.
Mayor Kelly Fergusson deferred comment on the case to Police Chief Bruce Goitia, who said he "can't comment on pending litigation."
Wendy Bemis of San Francisco-based Bemis and Associates is representing the plaintiffs, and would not comment on the case.
In the lawsuit, the officers allege that Sgt. Prickett "created an intimidating, hostile, abusive, and offensive working environment" through a number of actions, including placing white-supremacist images in the workplace.
All three of the suing officers started working for the city in 2001, and reported directly to Sgt. Prickett when he was promoted from detective to patrol sergeant in July 2005.
In the lawsuit, the officers claim they were subjected to "severe and pervasive harassment and discrimination on the basis of their race," and are suing the city and Sgt. Prickett for $2 million in total damages. A jury trial is set for Sept. 10.
The three officers say former police chief Chris Boyd and former commander Mark Boettger "had knowledge of [Sgt. Prickett's] racist behavior prior to becoming a sergeant" but promoted him anyway.
According to the plaintiffs' complaint filed with San Mateo County Superior Court, the city conducted an internal investigation of the discrimination allegations, but not until after the three officers filed their initial complaint with the county last October.
In 1991, Prickett was subject to a department investigation when he was accused by a fellow officer of using excessive force when making an arrest in the Belle Haven neighborhood.
The lawsuit lists several examples of alleged racial discrimination by Sgt. Prickett, including:
• He "repeatedly displayed white supremacist images" in the workplace, including Aryan Nation images, as screensavers on his computer and on the department's mainframe computer, and pointed out the images to the plaintiffs.
• He ordered black officers to not use "slang" terminology on the job. When asked for a definition of slang, Sgt. Prickett said, "you know how you all talk."
• He made derogatory and "disparaging comments regarding perceived African American qualities," such as how the officers walk and talk.
• He attempted to block promotions and pay raises for the officers because they are black.
Officers Butler and Hinkston are two of four officers to resign within the past several weeks, and the identities of the other officers have not been disclosed by the city.
Glen Kramer, the city's personnel director, said it's the police department's policy to not disclose the names and ranks of departing officers, and the reasons given for their respective resignations.
Mayor Fergusson said three of the resigned officers have joined the San Ramon Police Department.
The four officers are the latest added to a growing list of officers to leave the department in recent years.
In 2005, eight officers -- most of whom were veteran officers -- left the force under Chief Boyd, raising questions about management, officer morale and declining experience within the department.
At a May 23 community meeting, some residents of the Willows neighborhood asked Chief Goitia for enhanced police presence in their community, but he said the department is already stretched thin due to a short-handed staff.
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